January 16, 2020

UPDATE: On Jan. 11, 2020 the Iranian government admitted that its military forces shot down Ukraine International Airlines flight 752. 

On Jan. 8, 2020, a Ukraine International Airlines (PS) Boeing 737-800, operating flight PS-752 from Tehran Imam Khomeini International Airport (IKA) to Kyiv’s Boryspil International Airport (KBP), crashed shortly after takeoff from IKA, killing all 176 people on board. The crash occurred approximately four hours after Iran launched ballistic missile strikes against US military bases in neighboring Iraq. Iranian authorities have not stated what caused the crash, but credible evidence strongly suggests that Iranian air defenses shot the aircraft down, almost certainly by accident. Numerous major airlines are now avoiding flights over Iran and Iraq.


The Crash

Official sources have not released significant information regarding the cause of PS-752’s crash. Data from the aircraft suggests the aircraft took off normally but suffered a catastrophic issue seconds after takeoff. The location of the aircraft’s crash suggests the aircraft may have been trying to return to the airport, but the pilots did not make a distress call. Despite the recent ballistic missile attacks, Tehran’s airport was operating normally at the time of the crash, and several other flights had departed without incident in the hour before flight PS-752’s crash.


Shootdown Theory

Ukraine International Airlines Boeing 737-800 aircraft

There is strong evidence suggesting that Iranian forces shot down flight PS-752 with a surface-to-air missile (SAM). A video purporting to show the missile hitting the aircraft began circulating online Jan. 9, and the New York Times says they have verified the authenticity of the video. The respected investigative website Bellingcat has also posted information indicating that the video is likely authentic. Two images have also appeared online that show what appears to be a portion of a SAM allegedly found near the crash site; no major news organization has verified the authenticity of these images. There are several Iranian military facilities near the aircraft’s last communication that likely have SAMs on site.

Iranian authorities have so far denied that the aircraft was shot down. The topic of airliner shootdowns is a sensitive one in Iran; a US warship mistakenly shot down an Iranian airliner in 1988, killing all 290 people onboard. The Iranian government continues to frequently cite the incident in their public criticisms of the US. In this instance, US intelligence agencies have reportedly said that the aircraft was likely shot down, citing intelligence showing that a SAM radar was active and that two missiles were launched immediately before the aircraft crashed. Media reports indicate that Canadian intelligence agencies initially did not believe that the aircraft was shot down but have since accepted the US point of view. If Iranian air defenses did shoot the aircraft down, it is highly unlikely they did so deliberately. Iran did not have a clear motive for deliberately attacking a Ukrainian commercial airliner, especially one that was carrying a large number of Iranian citizens. SAM operators in Iran were almost certainly on high alert for potential retaliatory strikes following Iran’s ballistic missile strikes several hours before. There have been several historical incidents where SAM operators in the midst of ongoing conflicts misidentified commercial airliners as hostile military aircraft.


Mechanical Failure Theory

Iranian and Ukrainian government officials have speculated that an engine failure caused the crash but have not provided proof for this theory. A video circulating online claims to show flight PS-752 with an engine on fire shortly before it crashed; major media outlets are treating the video as authentic, though an engine failure alone should not cause a 737 to crash. The aircraft can fly on one engine, so an engine failure would have to be compounded by another failure, such as a piloting error, structural damage, or control system failure for the plane to crash. The engine failure theory and shootdown theory are not mutually exclusive; a SAM detonation near an aircraft’s engine would almost certainly cause the engine to fail.

Flight PS-752’s crash is unrelated to the ongoing grounding of the Boeing 737 MAX. The 737-800 is part of the Boeing 737 NG generation of aircraft, which does not have the same flight control systems that are behind the 737 MAX’s grounding. The 737 NG generation has an excellent safety record, and the CFM56 engines on the aircraft do not have a record of major in-flight fires without an external cause. Ukraine International Airlines also has a good safety record; the crash in Tehran is the carrier’s first fatal crash since it started operations in 1992 and the carrier’s non-fatal incident rate is normal for an airline of its size.


Airline Reactions

Airlines’ reactions to the events of early Jan. 8 are broadly divided between airlines based in the Middle East region and airlines based outside the region. Most Middle Eastern airlines have continued to fly over Iran and Iraq, including flights to and from US destinations; however, European, Indian, and Asian airlines have adjusted most of their flight routings to avoid flying over Iran and Iraq. As of Jan. 8, Iran has formally prohibited only US airlines from flying over Iran and Iraq, but no US passenger airlines have active scheduled services that would fly through the region.

The division in airline reactions is similar with regards to service to Iranian and Iraqi destinations. Most carriers based in the Middle East have continued their flights to Iranian destinations, including Tehran, while most Asian and European carriers who serve Tehran have suspended service as of Jan. 10. These service suspensions have not affected many flights, as relatively few non-Middle Eastern carriers currently serve Iran due to ongoing US sanctions and the country’s economic difficulties.

The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) banned US airlines, aircraft, and pilots from flying over Iran shortly after Iran’s Jan. 8 ballistic missile attack. The FAA issued the ban before flight PS-752’s crash. The US ban has little practical impact, as no US passenger airlines fly through the region regularly. Ukraine, the UK, and France have since issued similar bans for their airlines and aircraft, but other countries have not followed suit.

Learn about how Tensions in the Persian Gulf Region Pose an Ongoing Threat to Commercial Aviation